A Shrunken Head and Sexy Volcanoes

14/12/2004. Ecuador 2. After an early rise we trudge up a mountain path through the tropical forest and I stop to record my first Tanager and Toucan. There are birds everywhere and I’m so excited I don’t know where to look next. I scarcely notice the steep incline, but on the way down the other side of the mountain we pass two peasant families on small well-fed ponies, the children riding two up.

We enjoy a late breakfast and then it’s back to the bus for the tedious return journey to Quito via a stop at the equator for an experiment with water circulating in different directions in the northern and southern hemispheres. I am beckoned into the dark interior of a shop by a wizened crone with a hunch back, she glances round furtively then shows me a tiny gruesome object. It is a long moment before I realise with a shudder that it is a shrunken head.

We have a snack lunch in a tourist restaurant, excellent soup, potatoes, goats’ cheese, a piece of tomato and avocado, plus tree tomato juice for $6.70.

Clouds cling to the mountain sides. Our journey takes us up to extreme high altitude, then we dip low again until we don’t know when next we’ll be hot or cold. Lush farmlands stream past as we drive towards Otavalo. The staple crop is maize. Plastic horticultural houses dominate the land, roses of stunning quality the main export. Cultivation is mainly on the flat tops of the ridges, which fall into V-shaped canyons, but foliage is dense and there is no evidence of erosion. Even the steep road cuttings are covered with many species of plants and bushes clinging on at impossible angles.

EMHolstein cow

Ecuador’s main income comes from oil in the Amazon, horticulture next, then Holstein cows and pigs. Up on the right of the road a pair of oxen plough an impossibly steep slope. There are many dogs in this country, no two alike, and all are well-loved.

Another early start as we drive to Cuicocha Lake. The road goes along the valley between two volcanoes. In Ecuador volcanoes are male or female. The one to our left has a smattering of snow, and opens in the shape of a vulva. The right hand one thrusts its single peak into the sky. Together they produce their children – the mountain range behind us.

Crater lake

The snaking road takes us up the female volcano and we walk through the park gates, spotting several birds. The waters in the crater are calm with the occasional ruffle of breeze, a ruddy duck and some coots dive far below us. I spot ten more birds. The vegetation is pricked with thousands of tiny alpine flowers.

The spice lady

The clouds descend as we return to Otavalo to visit their famous market. I buy an alpaca jacket, which I still use today.

Panpipe family

In Peguche a local family serves us lunch. Corn on the cob, potatoes and goats cheese with beans. Dessert is the fruit we bought with us from Otavalo, lovingly prepared. Then the family performs. Father shows us how he makes pan pipes, demonstrating the different sounds and ending with a blow on a very long pipe used formerly for long distance messages. Two men play a duet as three children dance, dressed in Inca costume.

EMTungurahuaThe flora is similar to Kenya: wattle, lantana growing wild, gum trees. There are many plant species. The land turns even richer as we approach Machachi, and pass by wealthy homes with 2-3 acre gardens. But we’re not allowed to stay in the town as scheduled, as a volcano 50 km away has been making erupting noises.

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